The American Fine Arts Foundry in Burbank represents a legacy as distant as the 4th millennium BC.
It was more than 5,000 years ago that the search for ways to mold complex shapes led to metal casting processes involving clay and wax molds. And though the process this local foundry uses to cast sculpture in bronze is not so different from ancient methods, some of the materials now used weren't even available to founders Sandy Decker and Elliot Midwood in 1971 when they opened their doors. Contemporary technology and improved materials have facilitated their casting process and enabled them to meet challenges they couldn't consider 20 years ago.
"Bronze casting can be a risky venture. It's a complicated process," said Decker, who is also a sculptor. "I found what I learned from the people I apprenticed with over the years--who were primarily art casters--didn't resolve our problems. It didn't get to the quality level that Elliot and I were after.
"So I worked with industry, and by working with industry I've been able to use a lot of their technology in an art foundry. Some of it I can't openly discuss with you because it's privy, but we're not that much different than any other art foundry in general approach. It's the materials we use, the attentiveness to the materials, the constant monitoring, and we don't recirculate our materials."
With 400 artist clients internationally who create unique works or at most very limited editions, Decker added: "We've never wanted a production shop, even though that's been financially tempting over the years. We're trying for an excellence in our casting. That's what makes foundry art casting so exciting--it's a constant search for perfection."
One may be familiar with the foundry's work without knowing it. It cast several of the bronze sculptures at the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences in North Hollywood, including Jack Benny, Lucille Ball and Johnny Carson by sculptor Ernie Shelton, and Jackie Gleason by Richard Stiles.j
At the corner of Olive Avenue and Lakeside Drive in Burbank, in front of Shamrock Holdings Co. stands "The Cameraman," a striking, larger-than-life bronze homage to an old-time filmmaker, by the father-and-son team of Aldo and Andrea Favilli. Shamrock president Roy Disney commissioned the work. Installed in December, it is Burbank's first privately funded public artwork in the city's Art in Public Places program. Decker accepted no less than the best bronze his supplier could make.
David Schumann, one of the principals of I. Schumann & Co., ingot manufacturers for the casting industry in Bedford, Ohio, "worked with me very conscientiously, because he said that Elliot and I were his most demanding customers--not necessarily the biggest, but the most demanding, gave him the worst time," Decker said. "He agreed to make us a metal that no other company was willing to put the time and energy into because, even though we were a small company, we insisted on quality.
"We developed an art-casting bronze which he sells. I don't believe in holding something like that as a trade secret. It's the most beautiful bronze."
"The Cameraman" was the first large piece the American Fine Arts Foundry cast in that specific bronze formulation. Primarily copper, it also includes silicon metal and manganese.
"It made a perfect reproduction of the Favillis' surface texture," Decker said. The sculptors made the original figure in clay. "They work a lot with texture, and their tool marks are very important to them. Our customers depend on a high degree of resolution, a fine casting. Our process is not about saving a couple of dollars. It's about doing the finest job we can do for the artist."
The process--which can take as long as six months with large works that are cast in sections and welded together--begins in the mold room with the artist's original piece, which may have been made out of clay, plaster, wood, marble--any medium from which a flexible mold can be made.
"We usually use silicon-based rubber for our flexible molds, with a rigid plaster or gypsum or fiberglass jacket behind it," Decker said. "The mold is everything. If you don't have a good mold, it doesn't matter how good a caster you are."
After a mold is made, a wax impression is taken from that mold.
"We encourage artists to be as involved as they can be with us," Decker said. "We want them to microscopically go over the original waxes, cleaning or altering a surface--in casting, that's referred to as chasing. "
At this point, wax rods called sprues and gates are attached to the impression. A ceramic shell, the entity in which the bronze is actually cast, is then made around the wax impression. After the shell is formed, the wax is evacuated with heat. The rods will leave hollow channels that allow the liquid bronze to enter the mold cavity.
For the bronze casting, ceramic shells are heated in a kiln at temperatures ranging from 1,000 to 1,500 degrees. Pouring temperature of the bronze varies from 1,900 to 2,200 degrees.
Regardless of advanced technology, a bronze pouring looks like an ancient religious ritual and feels like a climactic moment of theater. Workers must don masks and clothing that protect them from the intense heat and the possibility of severe burns.
After a ceramic shell cools and is removed from the bronze, the sections of the bronze sculpture are welded together and the artists' original texture is duplicated at the seams. Once artists approve the result, they choose a patina.
"None of these on our board is paint," Decker said, pointing to patina samples. "They're all achieved by chemical oxidation. We use nothing that promotes the future destruction of the surface of the piece.
"One way of getting a green patina is to take nitric acid and drop a penny in it and use that on the bronze. It will cause a green, but you'll never get all the acidity off, and it really starts to destroy the piece. While initially it's a lovely color, it turns ugly. Part of the intrinsic beauty of patinas is the natural aging of them."
"They can pretty well come up with any color you want," said artist Ynez Johnston, a painter who has collaborated with her husband, John Berry, to make wood sculptures. Over about six years, the foundry has cast about 30 of their pieces in bronze. "They offer a technical skill which is very hard to find. They are perfectionists who take a lot of time and trouble with artists to see that everything goes just right and that artists get exactly what they want."
"As an artist, I would offer nothing less to another artist than I would want for myself," Decker said.
His co-founder, Midwood, was not a visual artist, but a musician on tour when he met Decker in Detroit in the late '60s. Though he still composes and plays bass, meeting Decker changed the course of his life.
"A very good friend who lives in Detroit took me over to Sandy's foundry," Midwood said. "The second I walked into that foundry, I knew that everything I'd been working for my whole life was right there in that foundry.
"I was always interested in technical things. I loved to take things apart, to invent things, and I was always making gadgets. That's what the foundry was all about. It was a way of making gadgets that made art, and it was absolutely fascinating to me."
When Decker decided to moved to Los Angeles, where Midwood was based, and open a foundry, Midwood joined him in the business.
"Every spare minute when I wasn't playing with the group, I was in the foundry," Midwood said. "Sandy got me started with most of the techniques. He was a master for technique. And then because I was so much into inventing things, I started playing, experimenting. Every day was like 50 experiments going on. It was great."
"In those days, we didn't have the money to experiment; he's still experimenting," Decker said with a laugh. "Nothing stopped him."
"It was kind of a rough time when we first started out here," Midwood continued. "We used to sleep at the foundry sometimes, 24 hours a day to get things through 'cause in those days it took days sometimes to burn something out"--that is, de-wax something in the mold they used at that time, Midwood said. "Today it only takes a few minutes because of the new techniques that are established."
"I think what helped Elliot and me--we didn't know it at the time--but because we were so small and so new, especially being in a new city, the only kind of jobs we could get were the tough ones that no one wanted," Decker said.
"It's amazing how many technical innovations have come about in the past 10 years by different things that we've done here. Those kinds of things really pushed us to get beyond what any other art foundry had achieved," Midwood said. When people have a difficult job to cast, they come here if nobody else can do it. It's certainly the most expensive foundry around, but it gets done, and it gets done right."